From The San Francisco Chronicle
January 7, 2011
By Sophie Brickman
“Don’t worship me until I’ve earned it,” the feisty Shirley MacLaine character, Aurora Greenway, says to a doting suitor in James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment.”
For that film, Brooks won best picture, best director and best screenplay at the 1983 Academy Awards, becoming one of just seven directors to hit the trifecta with one film.
Over the course of his career, which he began as a page at CBS after he dropped out of New York University, he has written, directed and produced a seemingly endless stream of television and movie hits, from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi” to “Broadcast News,” “As Good as It Gets” and “Spanglish.” With his latest movie, “How Do You Know,” which opened just before Christmas, Brooks, 70, shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
When asked if he thinks he’s earned worship, Brooks, who describes himself as “just a regular guy” on his Twitter page (@canyonjim), demurs. But the organizers of SF Sketchfest – the 24-day comedy extravaganza that begins Thursday – sure think so. They’ll honor him Feb. 1 at the Castro Theatre for his comedy writing.
Brooks got on the phone just before the new year to talk about the evolution of comedy, his favorite TV shows and that Twitter account.
Q: You started working in the entertainment business in the 1960s. What changes have you seen during the past five decades?
A: “Taxi” was on in the last days before the wall came down between TV and movies. They wouldn’t hire you in movies if you worked in television, but you loved your job partly because you were an underdog. Now almost everyone in movies has TV behind them. You can go back and forth.
Q: You’ve gone back and forth a lot. Do you prefer writing for one medium over the other?
A: Moviemaking is more isolated and the stakes are higher, but every movie I’ve made has been very personal.
That being said, I think television is the greatest environment for comedy work. You have a community. You live together for five, six, seven years. People get married, have children. It’s almost like living in a little town.
Q: Do you still have a sense of that television community in your role as executive producer on “The Simpsons”?
A: Sure! In these current dark times, we have this little island where we can go and all feel good.
Q: What are your favorite TV shows today?
A: “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Office” and “Modern Family,” for starters.
Q: You’re so hip. Speaking of which, you tweet.
A: Yes, I tweet. And when I tweet, I find I’m flirting with disaster, skating on thin ice, all of that. The only way tweeting is fun is if it’s spontaneous, an instant knee-jerk thing. Weighing it and thinking about it ruins what tweeting is supposed to be.
Q: Any tweeters you particularly like?
A: Sarah Silverman. It’s nuts how many valid page-worthy jokes she writes on her Twitter feed. Just amazing.
Q: Looking back to a pre-Twitter era, are there any classics you think everyone should watch?
A: I exposed all my kids to “Dr. Strangelove” at an early age.
Q: Do your kids think you’re funny?
A: I have a 17-year-old son, and when I get a smile out of him, it’s a big deal.
Q: Would you say there’s a difference between earlier generations of comedians like Mike Nichols and Elaine May and Lenny Bruce, and, say, the guys behind “Jackass”?
A: They’re trying to do different things, but, fundamentally, comedies are a simple thing. There isn’t a single definition of comedy that doesn’t include people going, “Ha, ha.” Clearly, there are giant shadows of comedy movies, the Billy Wilder comedies, the Woody Allen comedies. They’ll happen again, but those comedy giants are supposed to be rare.
Q: Do you think great comedy is timeless?
A: Yes and no. Rhythms change. I can watch and love “The Thin Man,” but I’m not going to laugh, although I believe people laughed when they first saw it. Maybe the (Monty) Pythons are timeless. You could make an argument that Mel Brooks is, too. I guess I think enchanted literary silliness is timeless.
Q: What about your work?
A: I try to be contemporary, so probably not. Maybe “The Simpsons.” Maybe “Taxi” will bear the test of time.
Q: Does your work stand the test of time with you?
A: I don’t tend to revisit my films and shows, but sometimes it’s nice, once years have passed. I recently did a director’s commentary for “Broadcast News” after not having seen it for a long time, and all I kept saying was, “Gee, that’s great!” or “Look at what he did right there! That’s fabulous!” It was the worst commentary in the world.
Q: But that means you must have done something right.
A: Yeah, I guess so.
10th Annual SF Sketchfest: Thurs.-Feb. 5. Various events and various venues. Lineup includes Dan Aykroyd, Candice Bergen, David Byrne, Neil Patrick Harris, Garry Shandling and many more. James L. Brooks will be interviewed onstage at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 after a showing of his film “Spanglish” at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. For a complete schedule and ticket information, go to sfsketchfest.com.